Election ’06: Using Voter Data to Target Web Ads

voterreg.jpgThat old saw about voting early and often may have a new twist: target early and often.

There’s been a lot of hoopla the last couple days about micro-targeting potential voters using data gleaned from commercial sources — from standard demographics to the type of car someone drives or whether or not he lives in an apartment or a three-story suburban home.

The fact is this stuff is not only used to refine get-out-the-vote lists for door-to-door canvassing or phone calls. It’s used to target online ads. And that’s not all. Sometimes these commercial data are merged with voter file data and site publisher registration data, making for one super strength ad targeting database allowing advertisers to target specific users.

In recent months, I’ve talked to lots of online political insiders about the use of voter file data in targeting Web users. Few agreed to go on the record with their comments regarding the topic.

Controversial? You could say that. Especially when considering the recent resurgence of privacy concerns over user tracking and ad targeting practices.

“There’s a lot of information being added to a voter registration file,” said one source familiar with the subject. He said he’d been involved with recent campaigns that had supplemented voter data with information, such as the magazines a user subscribed to, in order to target online ads. “It’s limitless in terms of what you can do to embellish it with added information,” he continued.

Essentially, according to the way it’s been explained to me, political advertiser data and site registration data is merged by a third party, creating a file then used by the publisher to target ads to registered users when and if they visit their sites. Obviously, this sort of thing works best when dealing with the big Web portals.

One data company that facilitates this for online publishers and their political advertisers, Aristotle International, is extremely evasive of the press from my experience. When I finally did get a hold of someone at Aristotle who is familiar with this end of their operation, he refused to talk, even off the record.

“These are the kinds of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves,” said one interactive political consultant I spoke with about it, noting the privacy concerns associated with tapping information like voter history and party affiliation for targeting ads.

“We’ve been doing this for years,” a spokesman for a major portal site that enables this type of targeting told me. “We have the ability to take extra data and match it up with our member database…. It’s a fairly common process,” he continued, noting there hadn’t been any privacy backlash. “We control the data at all times,” he stressed.

Sure, savvy consumers are accustomed to the notion that advertisers can combine information gleaned from their grocery store discount cards and other purchases with geographic and demographic information and data on personal income, clubs they belong to, or catalogs they get.

However, when their connection to the government — which primaries they voted in, for instance — comes into play, the dander goes up. It seems like it should be off limits to some.

“We wanted to do banner ads,” another trusted source familiar with ad targeting by a Republican operation during the ’04 election cycle told me, “but we didn’t want to throw out this huge net.” So, the group matched voter file data against AOL and Yahoo databases to target ads. The organization provided the voter file information, the third party data firm ran a match against the registration info and refined the list based on additional criteria such as party affiliation.

Then, in the last few weeks before the election, when those particular users showed up on AOL or Yahoo, they may have been served an ad with a GOTV message. The issue-based animated ads dealt with topics like education or national security, and were linked to pages allowing users to determine their voting location by entering a street address.

Early this year I asked another political consultant I know whether she’d ever matched voter file to registration data to target ads. “Yes,” she said, she’d tried it, “but it wasn’t effective.” Still, she continued, she planned on testing it out again this election.

“I really want this to work,” she said.

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